With Defensive Wizardry, UConn Outlasts Stanford to Reach Title Game

Connecticut, which overcame a winding, frustrating, injury-ridden regular season to resume its customary position as a postseason power, lasted just long enough on Friday night to defeat the reigning national champion, Stanford, in the Final Four.

The victory by the Huskies, 63-58, in Minneapolis assured UConn of a shot at its 12th N.C.A.A. title, which it will pursue in a Sunday game against South Carolina, the top overall seed in the women’s tournament.

Paige Bueckers, the sensational sophomore guard who grew up near Minneapolis but missed 19 games this season with a knee injury, led the Huskies with 14 points, even as she spent some time on the bench in the fourth quarter after taking a hit to the legs. And a UConn defense that strained Stanford from the start held the Cardinal to one of their lowest-scoring games of the season despite a late run that repeatedly turned the marathon into a one-possession affair.

Stanford made just 35 percent of its field goals, while UConn, a No. 2 seed in the tournament, mustered a slightly better outing, with 37 percent.

UConn outscored Stanford in the first quarter, picking up 12 points and holding the Cardinal to 9, nearly a season-low for the No. 1 seed in an opening period. But Stanford began to gather a measure more of offensive force in the second, when five players — Francesca Belibi, Cameron Brink, Lexie Hull, Haley Jones and Hannah Jump — scored, their balance barely outpacing a UConn team that picked up a trio of 3-pointers from Evina Westbrook.

At halftime, the Huskies had a 1-point advantage. The score promised an unusual outcome for one team: UConn arrived in Minneapolis with a 25-1 record this season in games it led after two quarters. Stanford was 6-1 after trailing at the half.

Stanford’s offense, though, maintained its sputter, at least by its standards, in the third. The Cardinal struggled to move the ball around the court, and their usually glimmering 3-point shooting languished. But UConn was hardly proving explosive itself, and the Huskies held a one-possession lead headed into the final quarter.

Olivia Nelson-Ododa, though, hit an early layup and then a free throw. Christyn Williams, a senior, added one of the night’s fleeting 3-pointers, followed by more free throws from Nelson-Ododa.

UConn, which beat Stanford in the 1995 Final Four on its way to its first national title under Coach Geno Auriemma, had an 8-point lead with less than five minutes to play, helped along by a Stanford scoring drought that stretched almost three minutes.

Stanford, its scoring led by Jones, who had 20 points on Friday, repeatedly narrowed the margin to a single possession in the final minute, but late free throws by Williams and Azzi Fudd helped UConn to rebuild and preserve its leads.

In Friday evening’s first game in Minneapolis, South Carolina routed Louisville, 72-59. The Gamecocks, who lost to Stanford in last year’s Final Four, last appeared in the national championship game in 2017, when South Carolina won its lone women’s basketball title.

South Carolina, whose players gathered around the court at the Target Center to watch their weekend rivals, and UConn will play the championship game on Sunday night.

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